Sometimes when a player gets released or made available via trade, the media rushes to draw a connection where there simply isn’t any. Just because a coach once worked with a player doesn’t mean he liked that player, and just because the player once worked with the coach doesn’t mean that was the best fit for him to be productive on the field.
But when it comes to a potential David Johnson-Bruce Arians reunion, I promise you we are not making that mistake. This is a connection that very well could happen if Johnson is becomes available (more on that later), as Arians loves Johnson, was critical of the running back’s usage under the Steve Wilks’ regime in Arizona, and is in desperate need of third down help out of the backfield in Tampa Bay.
“I don’t think there is a ceiling for him,” Arians said of Johnson on Good Morning Football during the 2017 offseason. “He can run the ball, he could start at wide receiver. He just goes out with the wide outs and runs routes. We just have to watch that we don’t overwork him.”
Then, early during the 2018 season when Arians was out of coaching and working in the media, he was highly critical of the usage of Johnson in Mike McCoy’s offense under Wilks.
“I just don’t like the use of David Johnson in this offense,” said Arians. “David Johnson is a premier wide receiver and I don’t see him out of the backfield creating the mismatches that he should be out creating and opening up things for Larry Fitzgerald. David Johnson, people didn’t realize, he opened up stuff for Larry Fitzgerald because he was used in the slot opposite, or we always put him in position to be opposite of Larry and pick your poison.”
Substitute Bucs Pro Bowl wide receiver Chris Godwin for Fitzgerald … are you thinking what I’m thinking?
Now, is Johnson the same player he was early in his career under Arians? No, he certainly hasn’t been, and last year he looked like he was running with a piano on his back. Injuries have slowed the once-coveted back, but they have been more nagging injuries than ones that would cause concern for his future.
At the end of the 2016 season there was a nasty-looking knee injury that somehow turned out to be just an MCL sprain. Then Johnson lost his 2017 campaign in the opener when he dislocated his wrist to a degree that required season-ending surgery. In 2018, he was healthy, but relatively unproductive compared to his usage under Arians, posting just 940 yards rushing with an average of 3.6 yards per carry.
In 2019, Johnson was an afterthought in new head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s offense, faring far better as a part-time receiver than a rusher. Johnson’s 36 catches for 370 yards and four touchdowns showed he can still be a weapon in the passing game, but he showed very little decisiveness or burst with the ball in his hands as a rusher.
— Frank Dyevoich (@Fantasy_Giant) February 6, 2020
Now, why would the Bucs be interested in a player like that? Because Johnson has never been supremely fast, but he has still shown the ability to be elusive and tough to bring down in space, as well as having wide receiver-level ball skills for a running back.
— Gabriel Schray (@schrayguy) September 22, 2019
— GlendaleCardinals (@YotesGlendale) October 13, 2019
That’s a running back getting off press coverage and then making a tough adjustment on a ball that wasn’t well-placed. These plays aren’t outliers either; Johnson has tremendous hands, can play out of the slot opposite Godwin when the Bucs go empty and make life very difficult on linebackers in coverage, especially on vertical routes. He may not be a burner, but he still whoops certain match-ups with his polished skill set and can make plays down the seam, which is something Arians loves.
The best part about a Johnson addition is that it means several things for the Bucs’ current backfield, and all of them are good. Ronald Jones II can still be the more featured ball carrier on early downs, allowing him to build on an exciting finish to the 2019 season where he rushed for 724 yards and six touchdowns while averaging 4.2 yards per carry. Peyton Barber can be allowed to walk in free agency, while Dare Ogunbowale can remain in his role as a special teams/third-down back, who can be all-around serviceable in the event of an injury. Johnson can also be used on the field with any of the aforementioned backs, and be a wide receiver candidate that relieves some of the depth issues Tampa Bay currently has at the position.
Now here’s the issue, Johnson’s contract is brutal to move. Although reports are out there that Johnson may be cut, that remains a pretty unlikely outcome. It’s possible that the Cardinals could want to shed his contract badly enough to release him, but he would count for more against their cap in dead money this season than he would on the actual roster.
I asked salary cap and contract expert Ian Whetstone (Follow him on Twitter @IanWhetstone – you won’t be sorry, the dude is extremely sharp) about the possibility of the Cardinals trading Johnson given his albatross of a contract and the significant reservations that a new team might have about his recent production profile.
“The new team would have to pay $10.2 million, plus a $300,000 roster bonus, plus up to $750,000 in per-game roster bonuses (if he’s active all year, they’ll pay the full $750,000),” Whetstone said. “The base salary is already fully guaranteed, plus they’d be on the hook for $2.1M of his 2021 base that vests to fully guaranteed on March 18 of this year.”
Bottom line: nobody wants to pay Johnson, who is 28, over $11 million this season, especially with anything guaranteed for next year. And nobody is going to want to trade an asset for that type of a hit either, even a late Day 3 pick.
Clearly the Cardinals want him gone, as the rumors have been swirling for months now and Johnson didn’t receive more than five carries or more than two targets in a single game from Week 7 on. Right now Arizona is in an extremely poor position, as they need to move on from Johnson, but it hurts worse to release him than to keep him, and nobody is going to trade for him straight up at his cost (Johnson is slated to be the third-highest paid running back in the NFL this season).
Still, a solution might be possible, albeit certainly abnormal.
“What I could see on the fringes of possibility would be, say, signing a restructured deal with a $5 million signing bonus and a $5.2 million guaranteed base this year (or whatever combination both sides could find suitable), with the understanding that he’s being traded to Tampa for some nominal compensation,” said Whetstone. “Then he gets his full guaranteed money, but the two teams split who pays it. So new team pays less, Arizona gets off the hook for some, he gets out of Arizona like he hypothetically wants, and in return he’s giving up the vested guarantee of $2.1 million for 2021.
“I’d still call it unlikely, but if you’re looking for something creative to get him moved, under the assumption that he wants out and would give a little up to come to Arians, that’s how I could see it happening.”
Johnson was vocal about being unhappy with his role in Kingsbury’s offense last season, saying in December, “Any NFL player, if you’re a competitor, if you’re not on the field, you’re obviously going to be upset about it.”
He has always spoken highly of Arians since the head coach’s departure from Arizona, as almost all of Arians’ former players do.
Although these kinds of compromised trades are rare, so is the Cardinals’ situation with Johnson. It is rare for a player to be one of the highest-paid players in the league at his position and also almost certainly be preparing to ride the bench as the team’s second- or even third-string running back this season. The team has also been vocal about wanting to re-sign Kenyan Drake, and they surely aren’t going to want two highly-paid running backs on the roster of a five-win team.
Although Whetstone is probably correct that based on history that this kind of move is unlikely, if there were ever a time for it, this is it. Arizona is going to have to compromise to get Johnson off their books, and Tampa Bay has plenty of cap space and flexibility to compensate Johnson enough to keep him happy. They’ll also have a role for him, a coach that knows how to maximize his skill set, and a backfield that could benefit from Johnson’s presence.